It is over. I am sitting in a pristine white room overlooking the Lake Superior shore while mom and grandma walk on the beach. I told them I was exhausted, that I need a nap, and it’s true, but first I have to write. I don’t know how to feel yet, I don’t know what to do with myself. Here is what happened:
Last night after I unexpectedly ran into mom and grandma, I walked to a restaurant and treated myself to a celebratory end-of-saga feast topped off with the most massive ice cream sundae I’ve ever seen. I ate every bite. I fucking deserved it.
Afterwards, stuffed but satisfied and only slightly neurotic about the meal, I returned to the Brickside Brewery to see if my pal Dave was there to advise me on the route I should take to get to my end point. He was there, working the bar, and he did help me. But while I waited for his navigational insights, he gave me a free beer.
I was so full that I seemed absurd that I would have even a sip. But, as I sat there perusing the map, talking through the comparative merits of different routes and basking in the glow of the celebratory moment, I did indeed drink some beer.
The map I referred to was more poetic than informative, it referred to the Keweenaw as a “fairyland of picturesque scenic wonders.” I learned that Highway 41 ends not far from town, but that a dirt road continues on for many miles, peeling off at various points to reach the shore- so I had options. The general rule seemed to be that each route would be beautiful but, the farther I went, the more impressive my sunrise would be. Dave kept topping off my drink and I, in turn, drank them. It wasn’t long until the sun was long gone and I was absolutely toasted.
At midnight, the bar closed but still I didn’t head out. Dave and I, along with some other displaced drinkers, moved down the street to another bar and drank even more. Dave and I were very flirty, I leaned into his body as we played pool, we grinned knowingly at each other as we ordered yet another drink, we made out, he tried to put his hands down my hiker shorts with the built-in underwear. It was quite a detour.
All the while I was pushing down the thought “Holy shit I still have 9 miles to hike! This is my last night!” I knew I was going to do it, it was just a matter of time. Finally, at 1:00 am, I pulled myself away. Dave followed me into the street, kissing me and grabbing me and generally trying to keep me close. In a moment of clarity, he became the symbolic barrier of all that kept me from reaching my goals. “NO!” I shouted. “I have to do this!” And I carried on, stumbling, down the street.
The moon was full and bright and it reflected off of the paint on the empty paved road. I tried to follow the lines like as if I were on a long-distance sobriety test. I failed. I was so drunk that I weaved constantly and dramatically back and forth along the lines like a slalom skier. It was rough. Before long, I reached an encouraging sign that marked the end of Highway 41: “ROAD ENDS.” It very well could have been my final destination, but it wasn’t. I took a picture, regained my composure, and continued on.
I walked for hours. I kept falling because the ground was rough, it was dark and, you know, I was wasted. With blood dripping down my leg, I gave in and used my walking sticks but I still went without the headlamp (a minor taste of the various internal competitions I held with myself all along this trip). There were various turn-outs of the trail toward the water but I passed by them, not wanting to stop before I absolutely had to. Finally I took one, only to find that it was still quite a ways to the water. I walked in the moonlight until I couldn’t go any more- not physically, but geographically- because in front of me was the great unsalted ocean of Lake Superior. It was 4:30 am. With all that weaving and the extra distance, I like to believe I turned a 9-mile hike into a 12-miler. One last marathon-length day.
I plopped out my tarp and sleeping bag and passed out. And, for the first time in this entire 6 weeks, I successfully slept under the open night sky. Every other night I was forced to take cover from rain or cold or bugs. But just this once there was no barrier between the ground below and the infinity above.
This morning I woke up with the sun already hanging low in the sky. Still drunk- I could smell myself- I felt bad that I missed sunrise. I sat up in my sleeping bag and realized how incredibly beautiful it all was. I was laying on the edge of a sort of a cliff-beach where the land ends at a rounded point and gives way to water for 270* all around me. Amazing.
I walked down to the nearby beach and skinny-dipped one last time in Lake Superior. I washed the sweat and dirt and blood off my body in the startlingly cold water. I spread my arms out to hug the sky and felt a deep gratitude for this one last taste of true solitude. Will I ever in my life be that alone again? I know I was the only person for many miles all around me. I howled as loud as I could. AaaaaaOooooooHHHhhhOOOooooo. I waited for the cry to come but it never did- I didn’t feel sad, I felt great. I hugged Lenny, I snapped a few pictures, I packed up my things, I took good long last look.
It was time to go back to town to meet mom. As I walked, I debated the merits of her finding me sooner- to save me from walking- or later- to preserve the sanctity of that final camping spot. I thought about how I would come back here one day with my kids. I tried to figure out what my lessons were of the trip, if it was alright that I’d missed my last sunrise, if I had done it right, or at least well enough. Then I stopped in my tracks.
I realized, with horror, that I had left my trusty little poop shovel behind on the beach. I was mortified. This whole trip I have been extremely conscientious about never leaving behind litter or waste or signs of my passage. And if those efforts were merited for the trail in general, weren’t the standards much higher for that sacred place where I ended my voyage? It would be a shame to return so soon and so unceremoniously. On the other hand, it would be unforgivable to leave behind any toilet-relate paraphernalia, especially in a place so precious as that. I dropped my pack in the dirt and ran back.
When I pictured my last moments on the trail, they absolutely included a deeply romantic, highly symbolic experience. If the details were unclear, at least I knew it ended with flourish, with the soul-cleansing, post-recovery, life-reckoning flood-inducing cry. The cry that would mean that the pain was over and that it had all be worth it and that absolutely, everything would be fine. I did not imagine leaving and then returning back as though I forgot my keys, I did not imagine picking up my poop shovel.
This time as I left, I laugh out loud. Wounded and hungover and humbled and tired, that is how I left that hallowed place.
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